Rick Steves, a well-known traveler and one of the country's most visible advocates of marijuana legalization, speaks during an interview in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 7, 2014. (Don Ryan, The Associated Press)

Travel host Rick Steves testifies in favor of Illinois marijuana legalization effort

A longtime travel show personality and advocate for marijuana legalization is backing an effort in Illinois to make the drug legal for adults and regulate it like alcohol.

Rick Steves, host of the PBS travel documentary series Rick Steves’ Europe, testified Tuesday in front of Illinois lawmakers that his “hunches” about the long-term effects of legalization in early-adopter states like Colorado and Washington have proven true.

“When you legalize marijuana, use does not go up,” Steves said. “Crime does not go up. What goes up is tax revenue, and what goes down is the black market.”

Illinois Democrats are pushing bills in that state’s House and Senate to legalize the use of marijuana for anyone 21-year-old or older and tax it in a similar way to alcoholic beverages.

Sponsors of the bills said the goal is to bring marijuana out of the black market where prohibition efforts have failed and tax its legal use, which is estimated to bring $350 to $700 million in new tax revenue.

“We’ve looked at the law enforcement perspective. We’ve looked at the history of other states, and we’ve gone about crafting this bill by looking at what other states have done right and what they wish they had done differently,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat from Chicago.

Interview: Steves talks to The Cannabist about civil liberties and Colorado legalization

Lawmakers also invited representatives from Colorado to testify Tuesday about their state’s adoption of legal marijuana use.

Most states, including Colorado, failed to study marijuana users before legal use was allowed to see what effect legalization had, said state Rep. Dan Pabon, chairman of the Colorado House Finance Committee.

“We never knew the size of the black market before we started. None of us had had data … about how much cannabis was being consumed,” Pabon said. He recommended Illinois gather data on users now and study the health effects after marijuana is legalized, if approved.

Marijuana sales in Colorado rose to $1.3 billion last year, and are expected to pass $1.5 billion this year, said Adam Orens, co-founder of the Marijuana Policy Group. He said that massive growth is due to users switching from illegal to legal sources for their marijuana and is likely to taper off at 3-6 percent in the future.

He recommended Illinois adopt a moderate tax on marijuana, to keep the price low enough to draw people away from illegal use.

“You don’t have to undercut the black market. You just need price parity,” Orens said.

If Illinois’ proposal is approved, personal possession for state residents who are 21 years or older would be capped at 28 grams of cannabis, with no more than 5 grams of such things as edibles and oils.

Non-residents of the legal age are limited to no more than 14 grams of marijuana, including up to 2 grams of concentrated marijuana.

Illinois residents would be allowed to have up to five marijuana plants, provided they are kept away from the public and anyone under the age of 21.

Illinois’ proposal would establish regulations for the growth facilities, the sale of marijuana and licensing of retail marijuana business. As with alcohol, it would be a crime for retailers to sell to anyone under the age of 21. Marijuana advertising would be restricted to prevent mass-marketing toward minors.

Possession of larger amounts of marijuana or more than five plants would still be illegal.

Illinois already has taken small steps toward making marijuana use more legal.

In 2016, Illinois decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill into law, punishing low-level possession with a ticket that carries a fine of $100 to $200.

Rauner had expressed doubt this spring after lawmakers introduced the legalization bills about whether it would be a tax boon for the state, saying he was “not a believer” that making drugs legal helps society.

Two years ago, the first medical marijuana dispensary opened in Illinois. Since then, more than two dozens dispensaries have opened, mostly in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.

Fourteen states have decriminalized personal marijuana use, while 31 have opened the doors for medical use. Currently, eight state allow legal, recreational use.

Illinois lawmakers said they plan to file amendments to the legalization legislation in January or February before pushing for a final vote.

Steves, who sits on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and was a co-sponsor of the initiative legalizing marijuana in his home state of Washington, said two-thirds of Illinois residents support changing the marijuana laws. Voters felt on edge in other states, such as Massachusetts, when he visited during their legalization efforts, he said.

“Illinois, to me, feels more comfortable with this,” Steves said.